Over the past several decades, effective community engagement has often meant the difference between projects that were successfully implemented, and great plans that stood idle gathering dust.  Citizen groups have become better organized and have demonstrated their skill at stalling projects which they believe are not in their best interest.

Organizations ranging from state departments of transportation to community service agencies have called on us to consult with them in designing community engagement strategies.  From our experience, we have identified what we refer to as, “Seven Strategies for Effective Community Engagement.”

1. Know your Purpose, Product and Process.

  • What is your purpose for engaging citizens?
  • What is the product that the citizens are to create that will fulfill the purpose?
  • What is the process the citizens need to undertake to create the product?
  • Use this information in planning the citizen engagement activity.
  • Communicate this information to the citizens during the citizen engagement activity.  Also communicate scope (what is included and what is specifically excluded) and time-frame.

2.   Utilize stakeholders to attract stakeholders.

  • Determine the various views and demographics that must be represented.
  • Identify two or more key stakeholders who might serve as catalysts for attracting others.
  • Meet in advance with key stakeholders to seek involvement in attracting the participation of other stakeholders.

3.   Establish and maintain a consensus-focused process.

  • Gain agreement on a decision making process.  While majority-rules and full consensus are options, consider 5-Finger Consensus to gain agreement without having to water-down solutions that have wide support. (See related article in our Resource Library.)
  • When disagreements occur, start with agreement, isolate the area of disagreement, fully delineate alternatives,  and use the appropriate consensus building strategy: (strengths and weaknesses, merging, converging, weighted score.)
  • If possible, prioritize to provide focus; permit “group lobbying” before prioritizing.

4.   In every meeting, I-E-E-I!

  • The first 15-20 minutes of a meeting must grab the attention of the participants:
    • Inform the participants about what is going to happen.
    • Excite them about the process by giving them a clear vision of the overall result to be achieved and the benefits to them.
    • Empower them by discussing the important role they play in the process, the reason they were selected, the authority that has been given to them, etc.
    • Involve them in the process by having them speak as early as possible (e.g., asking the key issues they want to see addressed.)
  • Set appropriate expectations: make sure they know what is reasonable and what is NOT reasonable to expect from the process.

5.   Utilize a level-setting mechanism to educate all participants.

  • Level-setting mechanisms might include : speakers, videotapes, articles, role-plays.
  • Provide a level-setting mechanism to establish a common foundation of knowledge on the subject area prior to any discussion of the current state; consider using a level-setting mechanism to establish a common glimpse of future possibilities.

6.   Use facilitation techniques to manage the discussions.

  • Use checkpoints and round-robins to keep the session moving and all engaged.
  • Use starting and reacting questions to engage the group; probe for clarification and challenge when appropriate; use redirections to by-pass irrelevant discussions.
  • Use ground rules, such as “Take a stand,” “Question then respond” and “End point first,” to maintain a cooperative and focused atmosphere.

7.   Prevent, detect and effectively resolve dysfunctional behavior.

  • Identify potential dysfunction during session preparation.
  • Execute prevention strategies to avoid dysfunction.
  • Actively look for signs of dysfunction early in the meeting.
  • Cleanly resolve dysfunction utilizing the four-step formula: approach privately, empathize with the symptom, address the root cause, get agreement on the solution.